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PUBLIC RECORDS AND ARCHIVES*
1. We have discussed at some length in Part I the complex and little understood functions of the Public Archives. It is necessary to repeat here only that this institution, which had its beginnings in 1872, is primarily intended to maintain in one place, accessible to government officials and, with any necessary limitations, to scholars, all the permanent public records of the nation not retained as active files by the government departments. A secondary aim and one of growing importance has been the collection not only of transcripts of public records of Canada deposited elsewhere but also of originals and transcripts of all kinds of historical material relating to Canada, including books, pictures, prints and museum pieces.
2. We think that the two main purposes of the Public Archives as practised in the past should be more clearly defined and more fully carried out. We also think that the historical purpose of the Archives might be more effectively fulfilled if certain of its activities were transferred to another institution in order to free the staff and premises for essentially archival work.
The Care and Custody of the Public Records
3. The collection of all inactive files of public records in one place where they will be under proper care, fully accessible to appropriate government officials, and as accessible to historians as the public interest permits, has been the avowed policy of the Federal Government for over half a century; but this policy has never been fully carried out. Since 1945, a Public Records Committee has had the power to advise destruction of useless files, and departments may ask permission to transfer to the Archives those that must be preserved. We are, however, not convinced that either the Privy Council Order establishing this Public Records Committee, or the consequent administrative instructions, are sufficiently well defined or applied in practice to fulfil their purposes: the proper safeguarding and accessibility of public records of permanent value and the destruction of those obsolete and useless records which now encumber the offices of all departments of government.
4. The Privy Council Order, together with an administrative memorandum dealing with the disposal of public records, are reproduced in an Appendix.1 We find that departments of government are authorized to destroy certain types of unimportant records in accordance with the provision of a Treasury Board Minute of 1936 which, with its amendments, permits destruction of specified documents without reference to the Public Records Committee or the Treasury Board. For other documents which may be destroyed only on the authority of the Treasury Board, we observe that the Board's authorization for destruction apparently contains no reference to previous consultation with the Public Records Committee which is assumed by the Order in Council. Moreover, the Order in Council, although requiring officers of the department ". . . to review periodically the state of the departmental records . . . with a view to disposal or transfer . . ." seems to us to be deficient in that it does not make mandatory immediate action and successive reviews at prescribed intervals. Finally, the Order in Council ignores the necessity of providing competent assistance to the secretary of the Public Records Committee to enable him to examine and to report precisely on records recommended for destruction or for transfer to the Public Archives.
5. We have endeavoured to discover the practices now followed in a number of departments and we are forced to conclude that the present system offers no complete security for the safety of material which may have great historical value. In offices where senior officials are pressed by other duties, what is regarded as routine destruction may at times be confided to a junior clerk who may exercise his own discretion unduly.
6. Measures for dealing with all inactive public records should be taken immediately. Want of experienced and responsible officials with sufficient leisure to devote themselves to this important work is leading, we fear, in some departments to the evil of indiscriminate storage tempered by covert destruction. Moreover, as we have pointed out, masses of important records are now inaccessible and are liable to damage from fire and a number of lesser hazards. All records should be consistently screened, and as files become inactive they should be transferred methodically to the Public Archives, subject, if necessary, to restrictions placed on them by the department and concurred in by the Dominion Archivist as in the public interest.
7. One special problem has come to our attention. In many departments the older records, produced under conditions completely different from those which prevail today, are filed according to systems not readily understood by any but a trained archivist with a knowledge of Canadian history. These records, many of which may appear to be incomplete or even fragmentary, may be of great historical value. It is not, however, reasonable to expect a departmental records officer, however competent
in modern archival practices, to evaluate or classify them correctly. They require special treatment.
We therefore recommend:
8. The very close relationship which exists between standards of historical scholarship and national policy concerning access by historians to official records prompts the Commission to make some reference to this important subject. There are wide variations in the policies of different nations in this matter. Broadly speaking, the countries of Europe have tended to be more conservative than those of the New World. Canada, probably wisely, has dealt with the question on a pragmatic basis and has never fixed a general date beyond which access is not permitted.
9. Subject to national security, the Commission considers that the public interest is best served by a liberal policy in the matter of access by historians to public records. The free pursuit of truth by scholars is a most important feature of our democratic system and one meriting every consideration from the Government. Without unlimited opportunities for research in the country's modern records the historian cannot render to our society and our culture the highest service of which he is capable. We are making no formal recommendation on this matter, but we would suggest that no fixed date be established after which research in public records is not permitted and that the freest access, consistent with national security and Canada's international obligations, be granted to students particularly to those specially qualified for research and for the writing of history.
10. It does indeed seem to us practicable to make a distinction between the degree of access to be granted to the public generally and that to be accorded to qualified students of history and public affairs. We consider that it would be in the public interest for government departments to use a wide discretion in according facilities to persons in the latter class. The scholarly investigator should be given every possible countenance and aid. In this manner he will be enabled to make his full contribution to the unending task of public education and to the constant play of free public discussion, which are such essential parts of the democratic process.
The Public Archives of Canada
11. Our recommendations on the Public Records cannot be carried out until the Archives has adequate space and staff. We have been informed that it is now relatively easy to find persons with proper academic qualifications for archival work. The nature of the professional training needed, as we have mentioned, is under consideration by the Dominion Archivist; and we understand that a consistent policy is being developed and will be made effective as circumstances permit. It is quite certain that a greatly enlarged, skilled and experienced staff will be necessary to give proper care to the large volume of material which should be transferred and to ensure suitable services both to government departments which may still make considerable use of it, and to scholars, who have long been expressing their need for it. Moreover, if the Archives is to maintain and extend its activities as an historical centre, additional trained staff will be needed for this purpose.
12. Before the staff of the Archives is enlarged, however, an investigation should be made of the qualifications and duties of the present staff. We do not consider it our duty to make detailed recommendations on this matter. We note the fact that of more than thirty people now apparently engaged in professional archival work fewer than half have anything beyond high school education. Moreover, it seems that a somewhat rigid departmentalization in the Archives has gradually grown up which is not in the interests of efficiency or economy. It is neither possible nor desirable to fix any personal responsibility for an unsatisfactory situation which began many years ago, before the nature and importance of archival work was fully appreciated in this country. We realize that reforms are difficult to make without hardship to individuals who have given conscientious service to the best of their ability. We consider, however, that the interests of this important national institution require a reorganization of the staff as a necessary preliminary to the enlargement which must take place if the Archives is to perform its proper function.
We therefore recommend:
13. There is no doubt also that the premises of the Archives, even if some of the collections now housed there should be moved, are quite inadequate. It has been suggested that the present building, which in some details is not entirely satisfactory, should be used for some other purpose and that a completely new Archives building be constructed. We are not convinced that this is necessary or even, in view of the urgency of the problem, desirable. The Archives building is solidly constructed, almost completely fireproof, and equipped with an elaborate fire alarm system. If it were devoted solely to documents and necessary books, additional space would be made available. We understand, moreover, that plans have already been drawn for a considerable addition.
We therefore recommend:
14. It is generally agreed that the Public Archives renders an invaluable service in the collection of transcripts of public records and of other historical material from abroad, and of historical material of all kinds in Canada. This work should not be interrupted nor should it be separated from the collection and care of public records. The two functions should continue and should be developed together in order that the Archives maintain in the future the distinguished services rendered in the past to Canadian historical scholarship.
15. The adoption of a more generous and energetic policy in the acquisition of all historical materials relating to Canadian history is
particularly urgent at a time when shortage of housing, frequent changes of residence, and the general insecurity of living conditions incline people to dispose of many family possessions, including archival material. We think it important therefore that a survey of historical materials be made and that archival acquisitions be increased accordingly. In carrying on this work, full advantage should be taken of the economy and efficiency made possible by the use of microfilm, as already in effect in the London and Paris offices of the Archives. We are informed that for a small additional annual expenditure the number of transcripts secured through these offices will be increased ten times by microfilm.
16. We have referred in Part I to the serious losses caused by the reluctance of many people, especially those who have been active in public life, to give or sell their papers to a public institution for fear of careless or wilful misrepresentation by irresponsible persons. We believe that these people should be reassured by the enactment of appropriate legislation.
We therefore recommend:
17. We have already mentioned in Part I the important role of provincial and local archival institutions which preserve materials of Canadian history. The suggested survey by an Historical Manuscripts Commission or similar body can best be conducted in close co-operation with provincial archival institutions which might be informed and consulted concerning any resulting acquisitions by the national Archives. It is not possible for one institution to have a complete original collection of
historical materials relating to Canada, nor is it desirable that the Public Archives acquire indiscriminately all materials with a direct bearing on our national history. The principle that documents available for acquisition should go where they will be most used should be adhered to by the national institution, particularly in dealing with materials in which a province has a special interest. There may be collections in which more than one institution will have a strong and legitimate interest; but there should be no serious difficulty in arriving at a reasonable compromise. Most problems can be resolved by the use of microfilm copies.
We therefore recommend:
18. We have been instructed to make recommendations on the manner in which the Public Archives can increase its services to voluntary societies and to the Canadian public generally. These services should develop naturally from the position of the Archives as the greatest collection of Canadian historical material in Canada, or indeed in the world. This position already has made it a meeting place for Canadian historians, a number of whom have served on its staff. In the past, the Archives has rendered important services to the public, through facilities offered to historians and to students of history and by encouragement given to historical learning through a series of important publications. For some years these activities have been restricted through lack of staff and lack of funds. They should be resumed and extended; this extension would be facilitated by use of microfilm and film strips.
We therefore recommend:
19. We have dealt so far with the functions of the Public Archives as a public records office, as a collection of other historical manuscripts, and as a centre of Canadian historical studies. We have recommended the continuance and extension of these activities, and the provision of adequate space, staff and funds for this purpose.
20. We must also consider the proper disposition of the resources of this important institution other than historical manuscripts. We have described in Part I the valuable and varied holdings of maps, books, pamphlets, newspapers, prints, pictures and other historical exhibits. We doubt whether all these collections should remain in the Archives. We think that the historical collections might well be combined, as suggested in Part I, with other collections in the Capital of a similar character, such as the War Museum, to form the nucleus of a Canadian Historical Museum. This would provide space in the Archives for documents now housed in unsafe buildings and which cannot be accepted by the Archives for want of room. Although it may be useful that the student be able to use documents in conjunction with relevant historical exhibits and pictures, this is not essential; and this ancillary material is now taking up valuable space in a building designed for the preservation of manuscripts. While regretting the loss to the institution of so much that is picturesque and stimulating to the imagination, we think that these collections might serve the nation better as part of a National Historical Museum. There, it is to be hoped, they could be arranged and displayed to better advantage. At present no trained person is responsible for their care and arrangement.
21. It has been suggested to us that the rest of the present holdings of the Archives should remain together, that documents cannot be separated from maps, newspapers, or books and that the simplest way of avoiding a separation would be to merge the Public Archives with the
future National Library. We have considered this difficult problem with great care; and we realize that those best informed and most concerned for the future of these institutions do not find themselves in agreement. We have already stated our view that a joint collection of public records and of other historical documents has admirably served the country's needs in the past, and that this should not be interfered with. The map collection should certainly remain intact in the Archives; originally many of these maps formed part of the documents, from which they were separated for purposes of preservation. A suitable reference library in the Archives is essential for those engaged in documentary research; and the existing Archives library has proved invaluable to students. We think, therefore, that the documents, maps and such books as may be considered necessary by the Archivist should remain in the Public Archives. The newspaper collections and some of the other printed material might perhaps be transferred to the future National Library.
22. We do not believe, however, that even the difficult problem of dividing resources is an adequate reason for merging two institutions which are in nature and function essentially different. The Archives is primarily a collection of manuscripts; the Library will be a collection of published material. Methods of care, classification and filing or shelving are different. More important still, archival and library functions are different. The archivist is a custodian charged with a direct responsibility to the government, of which he holds the records in trust; he has an indirect responsibility to the scholar, and a further responsibility to posterity. The librarian's material is chiefly expendable. It is his duty to encourage circulation; he is much less concerned with preservation. The primary duty of the Archives is to safeguard its material; of the Library, to make its material available.
23. There are further considerations. It is desirable that the Archivist should be an historian. For the Librarian, this qualification is not necessary and may even be undesirable in view of the wide interests and the specialized knowledge which he should possess. Moreover, in the future, these institutions will be so important that each must have the full-time services of a distinguished and experienced scholar.
24. However, the present Dominion Archivist, an able historian, is also an experienced librarian. He has been given the important task of presiding over the Advisory Committee on the new Bibliographic Centre during its formative period. We think it would be unsuitable at this time to break the personal union between the Centre and the Archives; but we do not believe that this personal union should be allowed to become institutional.
We therefore recommend:
* From: Canada. Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters, and Sciences. Report. Ottawa : King's Printer, 1951. By permission of the Privy Council Office.